How negligence, systemic issues lead to civilian casualties from U.S. airstrikes

The last known airstrike conducted before U.S. troops left Afghanistan did not kill its intended ISIS target. The drone killed 10 civilians — including 7 children — leading to growing questions over how the U.S. military prevents and reports civilian casualties. The Pentagon said Monday it will change procedures, but would not discipline any troops for the strike in Kabul. Nick Schifrin explains.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The U.S. military has been facing questions this week over how it conducts airstrikes and whether it is doing enough to prevent killing civilians and to report those casualties when it does.

    Nick Schifrin explains.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The last known airstrike of 20 years of war conducted before U.S. troops left Afghanistan did not kill its intended ISIS target. Instead, a drone missile killed 10 civilians, including seven children.

    Yesterday, the Pentagon said it will change procedures, but would not discipline any troops for that strike in Kabul.

  • John Kirby, Pentagon Press Secretary:

    What we saw here was a breakdown in process and execution and procedure, not the result of negligence, not the result of misconduct, not the result of poor leadership. There was not a strong enough case to be made for personal accountability.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin endorsed that move, based on a recommendation from the commanders of Central Command, whose responsibilities include Afghanistan and Syria, and Special Operations Command, whose personnel ordered many of those strikes.

    In the last few weeks, I have asked both commanders whether these incidents expose structural issues, including in how service members call in airstrikes. Both said no.

    Are they too quick to call in airstrikes?

  • Gen. Richard Clarke, Commander, U.S. Operations Command:

    Categorically, no. There's structure in place with commanders that take it by a step-by-step process.

    You're looking at where — what the potential strike is. You're talking about what type of effects you're trying to achieve, what type of munitions you're going to use.

  • Gen. Frank McKenzie, Commander, U.S. Central Command:

    We have gone to elaborate lengths to prevent civilian casualties. I cannot tell you in every case that we have been able to achieve that goal.

    I can tell you that, when we know about it, when we have an opportunity to learn that civilian casualties may have occurred, we do investigate it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Your response does not sound like you think that there is some kind of systemic problem, whether it's a climate or whether it's special operators calling in airstrikes too quickly?

  • Gen. Frank McKenzie:

    Combat, and particularly close-infantry combat, as occurs in a lot of these things, is an inherently messy, imprecise, bloody business. And we would like for it to be antiseptic. We would like for it to be perfect. It often is just not going to reach those standards of excellence.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    There was another incident on December 3, when a drone over Syria targeted an al-Qaida commander. The military says it killed him, but acknowledges it also killed civilians.

    A family posted this video of the strike as it hit and told us in an interview they were innocent victims.

    Ahmed Qasoum, Injured in Drone Strike (through translator): My son Mahmoud's head was broken. My wife's leg was broken. All of us were injured and full of blood. We went from happiness to devastation.

    Fatima Qaraq, Injured in Drone Strike (through translator): We don't have anything to do with the people in power. And had we known that was a motorcade in front of us for someone that was in a powerful position, we wouldn't have driven behind it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    To discuss these incidents and the larger issue of civilian casualties, I'm joined by Larry Lewis, who has worked with the Defense Department for over a decade to prevent civilian casualties. He was also the State Department's senior adviser on civilian protection, and is now research director at the Center for Naval Analyses, CNA.

    Larry Lewis, welcome back to the "NewsHour." Thanks very much.

    What's your reaction to the military not holding anyone accountable to the August drone strike in Kabul?

    Larry Lewis, Research Director, Center for Naval Analyses: So, first of all, it's not surprising.

    We often see a lack of accountability and discipline for these strikes. But, in my mind, there's a different question, not only holding individuals accountable for those that were involved in that strike, but the fact that we have seen thousands of these strikes, and we see recurring problems creates a question about, OK, who really should be accountable?

    Not necessarily the trigger pullers, but the senior leaders that have overseen these processes that have systemic problems.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You mentioned you have seen thousands.

    You published an essay this week in which you wrote that the Kabul drone strike was — quote — "not an isolated mistake," but, rather, part of a systemic pattern," and you called the strike negligence. Why?

  • Larry Lewis:

    So, negligence is defined as a lack of care, and that the exactly what we see.

    So, analyzing thousands of strikes, literally thousands, I have seen the same patterns that occurred in that strike over and over again.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And yet you also have heard the military say again and again that they do care.

    And you just heard the Central Command commander, General McKenzie, and the Special Operations Command commander, General Clarke, say that — quote — "There are structures in place" and — quote — "We have gone to elaborate lengths to prevent civilian casualties, such that there are no systemic issues causing these casualty incidents."

    You disagree?

  • Larry Lewis:

    I do disagree.

    So, again, what does the data say? So, clearly, the U.S. military has processes in place, they have an infrastructure in place. The problem is, that infrastructure has flaws. There are a number of implicit assumptions and there are a number of systemic problems that weaken the care that they give, and so you tend to see these patterns again and again.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In all of those studies that you have done, are there specific examples that you can remember that are particularly indicative?

  • Larry Lewis:

    A prominent airstrike in Afghanistan in 2010, where there were Special Forces on the ground, and they knew there was enemy combatant forces out there, and they knew it was along the line of bearing.

    So they kind of looked out with their drone and found the nearest thing along that line of bearing. It was three vehicles, so they follow the three vehicles, and then they struck it with airpower. And it was three civilian vehicles, and dozens of civilians were killed.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Do you believe there are lessons the military have identified, but not learned or implemented?

  • Larry Lewis:


    I say that the military seems to have amnesia, because we have identified a number of these problems before, but then they don't stick. You know, for example, in the drone strike, there were a number of different things. There were civilians right outside of the frame.

    But what you need to do is kind of step back and say, OK, have things changed right before I make this engagement decision?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Do you think this is a question of leadership?

  • Larry Lewis:


    It's — I mean, and what we have seen over and over again is, when senior leaders are very clear that protecting civilians is part of the mission, and it's something that they're watching and prioritizing, we see improvement. And when there's not that clear message from the top, then we see basically what we have been seeing the last few years.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    I want to ask specifically about a New York Times report this weekend on a special operations task force named Talon Anvil that during the height of the war against ISIS — quote — "circumvented rules imposed to protect noncombatants." That's what The Times reported.

    You have worked with these special operates for years. Do you believe that, during the height of the war in ISIS, they circumvented the rules?

  • Larry Lewis:

    I have been following the unit quite a while. And I have seen quite different behavior over the years.

    So there are times where the care wasn't as great. And I would include Syria in that part. I have also seen times where they took great care. And the difference was they had command emphasis that said, this is important. And when that emphasis was there, they did a fabulous job.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, finally, what practical steps do you urge the military to take in order to reduce civilian casualties?

  • Larry Lewis:

    So, I think, first of all, it has to start with leadership. There's no leadership on this issue.

    And, in addition to that, there are no resources. So, if we're going fix this problem, and we're not going to have amnesia and forget about these things that we do over and over again, we have to devote resources and we have to have leaders that are committed to actually solving these problems.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Larry Lewis, thank you very much.

Listen to this Segment